How to relax when you have all the reasons not to
The stress of everyday life can take a toll on us. Yet oddly enough, the more stressed we are, the less inclined we are to give ourselves permission to relax. Our automatic response tends to be either, a) defend ourselves against what is causing us stress, or b) actively avoid confronting it. I describe defenders as those who cannot take their minds off what they can do to defeat a stressor, with responses that range from obsessive planning and over-thinking to aggressive or manipulative behavior meant to force an outcome that makes us feel safe. While avoiders emotionally numb themselves so that they don’t have to deal with the stressor with activities that range from binge watching TV, to compulsive shopping to other addictive behaviors.
These responses have their roots in survival. When we are stressed, we mentally and physiologically go into fight or flight mode. Fighting or fleeing are the options that are instinctively available to us as a species that has evolved to survive perceived threats. And these are great responses in the face of actual physical harm.
However, a lot of the stressors many of us encounter in everyday life come from emotional reactions to situations we face in areas of life such as work, relationships, finances, etc. And for these stressors we fight or flee by either defending or avoiding. Both of these options are unproductive, and actually you can do better! When we are stressed is when we most need to intentionally tap into a relaxation technique.
Still defending or avoiding?
Break out of your survival stress response and consider taking a moment to engage in a relaxing activity. The defenders reading this are probably thinking, “How can I relax when I have to figure out how to fix XYZ?!” And my avoiders are probably thinking, “Can’t you see me relaxing over this pint of ice cream and incessant scrolling on Instagram?”
The point of relaxing is not to ignore your problems, but to help you cope better with the stressor. Relaxation involves activities that allow you to reconnect with yourself, feel calm and fully present, and experience joy.
Not convinced? Scientists have found that stress adversely affects our brains by making us less effective at solving complex problems or performing higher order tasks, because our brain's energy is focused on basic survival instincts. Ever notice after calming down from an intense situation that you all the sudden have brilliant ideas for what you should have said or done that completely alluded you while you were in the thick of that situation? What's more, health studies have proven that a relaxation response helps us avoid stress-related illnesses, and minimizes anxiety and depression; proving that stressed or relaxed states impacts us physiologically.
Can’t argue with science. So now that you get why relaxation works…
Give yourself permission to turn off and calm down
The first step is giving yourself permission to relax. It’s tough because in our society we often associate relaxation with laziness, not being serious, or not caring about important issues. Relaxation nourishes us emotionally, in the way that good food and exercise nourish us physically, or the way that learning something new nourishes us intellectually. You already know the benefits of relaxing, so consciously choose to ignore that little voice that might make you feel guilty for relaxing, and tell that voice that taking a moment to yourself is in everyone's best interest.
Reconnect with self, be present, feel joy
Relaxation techniques often fall into one of the categories below. These examples I provide are not exhaustive. Feel free to come up with techniques on your own; but remember that it should meet the criteria of allowing you to reconnect with yourself, be present, and experience joy.
Mental stimulation and creative expression (ex: photography, cooking a nourishing meal, reading a funny novel)
Physical activity (ex: going on a nature walk, playing outside with your children, dancing to your favorite tunes)
Physiological self-care and pampering (ex: getting a massage, sweating it out in the sauna, aromatherapy)
Connecting through relationships (ex: calling a loved one, laughing with a friend over dinner)
Cultivating spiritual connection (ex. meditation, prayer)
Now it’s time to loosen up a little and try something new, or something old that you know relaxes you but stopped fitting into your schedule. If you’re pressed for time, set a timer to give your undivided attention to a relaxing activity before moving on with your day. If you find yourself too busy to remember, schedule a date with yourself in your calendar. Real life will be waiting for you, and you will find yourself better equipped to handle what comes your way.